My wife and I had another couple over for swimming with the kids last night, and the woman in the other couple -- Jenny -- was telling a story regarding a friend of hers dealing with sexual harassment reports at a school where she teaches (or rather, her friend failing to report it when she witnessed it taking place -- long story, not mine to tell, so I'll say no more). I brought up that shitstorm taking place in the atheist/skeptic blogosphere right now, and we talked about that and related issues for awhile.
Elevatorgate also came up, since I had told my wife about it before. And actually, Jenny had read about it in the news, believe it or not! In any case, I made a contrast between the present issue regarding anti-harassment policies, which I think is a relative no-brainer, vs. the issues surrounding Elevatorgate, which I think are really complex and difficult.
Jenny got what I meant by that right away, referring to Elevatorgate as "relying on a lot of subtext." My wife, however, said, "Jay, come on now, any time you ask a stranger in an elevator to do just about anything, that's just not appropriate."
She's right of course, and in that sense Elevatorgate is simple. But I still say that dealing with these issues is hard, and here's why: While I pretty quickly saw why you can't go propositioning a stranger in an elevator once it was pointed out to me, it is not something that would have easily occurred to me on my own.
As I explained to her last night, I simply have not ever been in a situation in my entire life where I seriously thought I might get raped. Never happened, not once. Moreover, it's rare that I even experience situations where somebody is making vague implications that encourage me to comply lest I be overpowered in some way.
My wife responded by asking me how I would feel if a 6'5" man got into an elevator with me at 2AM and tried to proposition me for sex. Oh sure. And I can use empathy to understand what that might feel like. But the key point is that neither that nor anything like it has ever happened to me, ever. It's something I can empathize with, it's something I can train myself to think about, but it's not something that I naturally intuit, because I have no direct frame of reference.
It's a theme that gets repeated over and over again: Privilege itself makes you blind to privilege, unless you make a deliberate effort to educate yourself and train yourself to see it. And even then, it will always come harder to those of us who lack a frame of reference.
So what's the practical upshoot of this? Well, certainly I'm not asking anyone to feel sorry for us poor menz who don't understand what it's like to fear being raped. And in fact, despite the deliberately provocative title of this post, I don't think there's a whole lot that women can do about this. I think some women might benefit, just from a personal sanity perspective, to keep this in mind when they encounter cluelessness that seems shocking and willful to them. But that doesn't mean they should react to said cluelessness any differently; it's just, if it helps you not completely tear your hair out, you might remember that these knuckleheads probably really actually don't have any idea what you are talking about.
More importantly, though, this is about what men need to do differently. Now, many men have indeed experienced rape or the fear of rape. I don't want to downplay that. But we must recognize that, while virtually every woman has legitimately been concerned that she might be sexually assaulted, it is probably fair to say that the majority of men have not. Maybe not a vast majority, but a majority nonetheless.
And that means that most of us are lacking a pretty freakin' important piece of the puzzle here, and if we're going to get that piece we need to listen. This is not something you can make intuitive sense out of, because you don't have the reference frame to apply your intuition. It's like trying to gauge the difficulty of doing a layup if you've never even handled a basketball before: You might be able to analogize to other experiences you've had, but maybe it would be better to just ask a basketball player. And if the answer she gives seems wrong to you, then consider the possibility it might be because of your lack of experience in situations like that, rather than intransigence on her part.